Finland’s Education System: A Superior Model
Over the past two decades, America’s education system has declined, due largely to complacency and inefficiency. Among other things, this harsh, infuriating reality is reflective of lower or misguided priorities in education and inconsistencies among the various school systems. Conversely, since arising from the Soviet Union’s shadow, Finland has transformed its education system into a model of excellence. Several decades ago, teaching became the country’s first priority. Only a limited number of universities could offer teacher programs, and these programs required a master’s degrees to achieve a higher quality of teacher. The Finnish school system also broke ranks by eliminating standardized testing, excessive homework assignments, and private schools. Most notably, children were not left behind because neither teacher nor country would give up, each devoting time and money to ensure quality education. To this day, Finland’s schools focus on social and moral development, teaching interpersonal skills and an understanding of different cultures that prepare students for life in an increasingly complex global economy. A number of other countries are now stealing from Finland’s playbook. America should pay attention and do the same.
In the early 1970s, Finland had an underperforming education system and a poor economy. The Finns knew that to achieve their goal of a knowledge-based society, the education system needed revamping. According to Tony Wagner, a Harvard professor and director of “The Finland Phenomenon,” Finland’s agricultural economy fell into a steady decline relying heavily on one product, trees, and had an unsuccessful education system to boot. Only one out of every ten adults had completed more than nine years of a basic education. Needless to say, holding a degree from a university had become a rarity. Most children left public schools after six years while the rest attended private, folk, or academic grammar schools. The privileged few and the lucky ones received a quality education. This is perhaps why Finns now value equality over excellence and emphasize “equal opportunity to all.”
The country’s goal was to create a knowledge-based economy, with a metamorphosis of the education system being the key. However, in order to do that, the system needed a complete overhaul, from teacher education to quality control to how students learned. In 2000, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)’s first test results revealed the country led the world in reading. They have continued this tradition every year in reading, math, and science and rank in the top four in education out of 57 countries. “I’m still surprised, I didn’t realize we were doing that good,” said Arijariita Heikkinen, a principal in Helsinki. Finland’s success didn’t happen overnight. It took almost four decades before the country’s educators realized, without even trying to, that their methods worked well beyond initial expectations.
The transformation of the Finnish education system began with teachers. Increasing the requirements for education and limiting which colleges provided teacher programs ensured quality control over the teaching programs. When Finland began the first stages of remaking its education system, teaching made it to the top of the list. The first reforms relocated all teacher education from teacher colleges to universities, which enabled a higher level of professionalism and academic sophistication. In order to control quality and maintain standards, only eleven colleges and five vocational schools offer teacher education programs. Of equal significance, further reforms have since required teachers to hold a master’s degree.
Due to extreme selectiveness, admission into the teaching program has become as competitive as getting into an Ivy League school. The program allows only the best and the brightest, accepting one out of every ten candidates. Applicants usually come from the top quartile in their class and are accessed based on their upper secondary school record, extra-curricular activities, and their score on the Matriculation Exam. If the applicants make it past the first screening round, they are observed in a simulated teaching environment, and if they make it through this, they are then interviewed. Applicants who show a clear aptitude for teaching, in addition to strong academic performance in their interviews, are accepted. During their in-depth preparation, future teachers study and apply theory of what they’ve learned in designated field schools. By graduation, they have completed 120 supervised teaching lessons. Because the government has created the program, they can trust the teachers, and they aren’t monitored or tutored in their first year teaching. “Trust Through Professionalism” is a motto, says Tony Wagner. Teaching has become the most well-respected and sought-after career in Finland, largely because teachers operate with complete autonomy in their classrooms, creating their own curriculums and using their classrooms as laboratories where they are the scientists.
Finnish students have more success in school due largely to the fact that the teachers aren’t willing to give up on them or allow mediocrity. Children begin attending school at seven years old, and no matter if one is more advanced or needs extra help, all students are taught in the same classroom. A Smithsonian article places the importance of this strategy in clear relief. Besart Kabashi, a 13 year-old Kosovo-Albanian refugee, had drifted far off the learning grid and was resisting help from the teachers. The school’s team of special educators, comprised of a nurse, psychologist, and social worker, convinced the principal it wasn’t just laziness that prevented Besart from learning. The principal, Kari Louhivuori, who also teaches classes, decided that he was going to give Besart one-on-one tutoring. “We try to catch weak students. It’s deep in our thinking,” Louhivuori said. Louhivuori decided to hold Besart for a year — during this time, an uncommon practice in Finland. With Louhivuori’s constant tutelage and “whatever it takes” attitude, Besart began reading books during his downtime, and by the end of the year, he had conquered the vowel-rich language. This is not just a feel-good but unusual scenario. Thirty percent of all children in Finland’s school system receive extra help during the first nine years of schooling, due mostly to the fact that teachers are devoted to educating and aren’t willing to pass students on without earning their way or just to get them out of the classroom.
The difference in the daily school life between Finnish and American students is dramatic, from classroom structures to the amount of homework students receive. While American students begin their school at five to six years of age (and in some states, students can even begin kindergarten as early as four), Finland doesn’t require children to begin their school careers until they are seven years old. Finnish schools don’t assign a counterproductive volume of homework assignments because it is assumed that knowledge, comprehension, and proficiency are mastered in the classroom and not at home, unlike in the U.S., where, according to a 2007 Metlife study, kids from elementary to high school spend anywhere from one to three hours on homework a night.
Due to the trust they have in their teachers, Finland abolished standardized testing. In stark contrast, American children sometimes take up to a month or more of the various standardized tests. In fact, more often than not, learning has to be put on the “back burner” to accommodate these tests, and as soon as one is over, information is crammed into the students’ brains just to get them ready for the next test. Whereas Finland values students and wants them to enjoy a relatively free and fruitful childhood that allows them extra time for worthwhile diversions, America seems to want to beat that innocence and wonder out of its children.
Finnish students have consistently proven that their educational program is continually developing. A Stanford review clarifies an unhappy reality: “In the most recent assessment in 2009, [Finnish students] ranked sixth in math, second in science and third in reading. By comparison, U.S. students ranked 30th, 23rd, and 17th, respectively, of the 65 tested countries / economies.” This is a frightening statistic among educators and parents alike, and many continue to wonder how this can be possible from the world’s premier superpower. If the United States’ people and government would unite and focus primarily on the education of the students, as Finland has, maybe one day we will not have an annual dropout rate of 3,030,000.
Americans need to stop trumpeting the claim that they live in the greatest country in the world given the reality that we’re slipping behind in education due to standardized testing, hand-holding of children and teachers alike, poor teacher education and training, and on and on. We need to take a good long look at what Finland is doing successfully and begin incorporating more intelligent and effective strategies into our schools. Finland’s road to success didn’t happen overnight. The country’s academic success took smart planning, a willingness to take risks to achieve measurable and ambitious goals, patience, and fortitude — things America’s education system needs. Finland’s retention rate for teachers is 97 percent while America’s is 35.5 percent (with a five year burn-out rate). This probably has something to do with Finland’s unwavering faith in their teachers. Finland set a standard for the entire world, and while we are at least 58 times larger in population, would it be so impossible to do the same? With a little imagination and the willingness to follow more successful education models, America can be in the top percentile of the world’s education rankings. This should be our expectation, especially in an increasingly interconnected global economy.